New York City, the mid-Sixties. J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is a young man in an Italian-Catholic neighbourhood, spending much of his time hanging out with his friends, including Joey (Lennard Kuras) and Sally Gaga (Michael Scala). Then he meets a girl (Zina Bethune), leading him to question his life and his attitudes...
Martin Scorsese's first feature film, had a complicated path to the screen, not to mention several other titles than the present one. Born in 1942 to an Italian-American family, health problems as a child meant he spent a lot of time watching films, either on television or the local movie house. He developed a lifelong passion for cinema. Following early ambitions to the priesthood, Scorsese did a Master of Fine Arts at New York's University Tisch School of the Arts, studying film. While there, he made his first short films.
Who's That Knocking at My Door began life as one of these, originally entitled Bring on the Dancing Girls. After military service, Harvey Keitel, three years older than Scorsese, was working as a court reporter to support his acting career, on stage up to that point. He auditioned for Scorsese, and was cast as J.R. The short film concentrated on J.R. and his friends. The film was expanded to feature length by incorporating Zina Bethune's character. (She's unnamed on screen and is simply “The Girl” in the credits.) Bethune, born 1945 (she died in 2012 as a result of a hit-and-run accident) She began dancing as a child and acting as a teenager, on stage and on television: this was her big-screen debut. Scorsese began shooting in 35mm, in love with the black-and-white 1.85:1 look of the Italian films breaking through at the time, such as Eight and a Half, Fists in the Pocket and Before the Revolution. However, Scorsese found the camera cumbersome, and too large to shoot in confined spaces such as rooms. So he switched to 16mm for the rest of the shoot. The two cinematographers were Richard Coll, who had shot Scorsese's earlier short It's Not Just You, Murray! and Michael Wadleigh, spelled “Wadley” in the credits. Wadleigh later went on to direct Woodstock, on which Scorsese worked as an editor, and Wolfen. The editor on Scorsese's film was Thelma Schoonmaker, who went on to become his regular editor from Raging Bull onwards, winning three Oscars for her work. Although Scorsese gets the writing credit, Betzi Manoogian is credited with additional dialogue.
Eventually the film was finished, and premiered at the Chicago International Film Theatre under the title I Call First. Then Scorsese received an offer from an exploitation film distributor to buy the film if a sex scene could be added. So Scorsese filmed a three-minute sequence, shot by an uncredited Max Fisher, a commercials cameraman, in Amsterdam. This sequence was added to the film as a dream sequence (more of which below), which was then retitled Who's That Knocking at My Door, after the song played over the final scenes. This is the version that has been available ever since, copyrighted 1968. (A later retitling to J.R. didn't stick.) There's no question mark on screen, as Scorsese believed that including those in film titles was bad luck. Scorsese makes the first of his on-screen cameos in his own films, uncredited as a gangster.
It's not difficult to see the autobiographical inspiration for this film, even if you didn't know that the mother baking for her family in the opening scene, and again nearer the end, is Scorsese's mother Catherine. Further evidence is that Who's That Knocking was originally intended as the first of a “J.R.” trilogy, of which the second would have been Mean Streets, which did eventually star Keitel but as a different character. J.R. has Scorsese's obsessive cinephilia, with trips to the movies for dates and conversations about The Searchers and Rio Bravo making up much of their time together. J.R. lives in a very male milieu, hanging around with his friends who all seem to be unable to relate to women. J.R.'s own sexual attitudes, undoubtedly influenced by his Catholic background, are certainly of the time, and it's a fair comment that when he feels it difficult to cope with the fact that his girlfriend has been raped, the film treats it as his crisis rather than hers. (She is never given a name, remember.) His first reaction is not to believe her, and her having been raped blurs the line he established earlier when talking about the difference between a “broad” and a “girl”, that is one he might have sex with and one he might marry, especially as she'd gone in a car with her previous boyfriend before he raped her.
The added sex scene reinforces this. It couldn't be less seamlessly included, cut sharply into |J.R.'s broad-versus-girl monologue. There then follows a montage, with The Doors's “The End” on the soundtrack, representing a dream (or flashbacks?) of several women J.R. has slept with, before cutting back to the conversation. Also, Keitel is noticeably older in this sequence.
Inevitably rough and ready due to its hand-to-mouth production, and somewhat problematic in parts as mentioned above, Who's That Knocking is still a debut of considerable talent. It's a young man's film in many ways, not least in showing us what its director can do. I've mentioned the use of mobile camerawork as a future Scorsese trademark. Another is the use of music, with several scenes playing out silently with particular recordings on the soundtrack, mostly early 60s soul, pop and doo-wop, but also rock from later in the decade such as the Doors track in the dream sequence. Scorsese was influenced by Kenneth Anger's short Scorpio Rising. It's worth noting that the use of pop/rock music to counterpoint the image – rather than, say, being a song sung in an Elvis picture – didn't catch on in Hollywood until Easy Rider, which was made after Who's That Knocking. The film ends with a montage, cut to the title song, bringing together all the themes and motifs we have seen so far. Scorsese attracted attention with Mean Streets, which was his first feature, but that film clearly has its roots in that one. As has its director's talent.
Who's That Knocking at My Door was released in September 1968 in New York City. It received praise from critics, particularly Roger Ebert, who wrote about it after its Chicago premiere the previous year. When the film has its commercial release, Ebert downscaled his praise, while still acknowledging the talent on display, even if it wasn't fully realised. It received a UK release in 1976 in the wake of Taxi Driver's success, distributed in 16mm. It carried the then AA certificate (fourteen and over), which was surprisingly lenient for its time, given the dream/sex scene and the not-graphic flashbacks to the girl's rape – it's now rated 15. It had its first UK television showing on 8 March 1985 on Channel 4, which is when I saw it.
The BFI's release of Who's That Knocking at My Door is DVD-only as no HD master was available to release the film on Blu-ray. The disc is dual-layered in PAL format and encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1. As mentioned above, the film was shot in both 35mm and 16mm, black and white, and the straitened circumstances of its making do show. Grain is in abundance and some of the 16mm-shot material is quite soft. But this is a film which will never look pristine.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0 and it sounds fine – less rough and ready than the picture which accompanies it. There are English hard-of-hearing subtitles available. These go further than most by subtitling the lyrics of the songs on the soundtrack, though the subtitler is clearly unfamiliar with “The End”. Jim Morrison's intoning “kill...kill...kill...kill” near the close of the track is subtitled “yeah...yeah...yeah...yeah”.
On the disc is what is described as a partial commentary by Scorsese and directorial assistant Mardik Martin, running approximately 43 minutes. This isn't scene-specific at all, with the two men clearly recorded separately with their contributions intercut, both of them talking about their backgrounds and the specifics of the making of the film. Scorsese is clear that he isn't especially fond of this film, finding the viewing of it rather like reading his high-school yearbook. However, he does acknowledge that it was a learning experience for him, and contains many of the mistakes he made while he was learning. Without it, he says, he couldn't have made Mean Streets in particular. The track begins at the start of the film, and takes a break at the twenty-seven minute mark, coming back again after six minute and then continuing to the end of the dream sequence. Scorsese then returns at eighty minutes to wrap up.
Also on the disc is a short featurette dating from 2003, “From the Classroom to the Streets: The Making of Who's That Knocking at My Door” (12:40). Mardik Martin takes centre stage, talking about how he had been a film fan while growing up in Baghdad and had met Scorsese at college in New York City. We see storyboards for Who's That Knocking and extracts from the short Bring on the Dancing Girls version.
The BFI's booklet runs to eight pages and mostly comprises an essay by Christina Newland on the film, covering its making and themes, particularly concentrating on its view of women, via J.R.'s character. Also in the booklet is a reprint of Tom Milne's review from the September 1976 Monthly Film Bulletin, full credits for the film, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.